The Ansel Adams Zone System

Background and Philosophy

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The Zone System was developed by Ansel Adams and Fred Archer as a teaching aid while they were teaching at the Art Center School in Los Angeles in 1940. It became clear to Adams and Archer that the way to liberate the students creativity was to provide a practical system that would guarantee 'correct' results and allow visualisation (knowing how the final image will look at the time of exposure). To quote Ansel Adams from his autobiography,

"Craft facility liberates expression, and I am constantly amazed how many artists think the opposite to be true."

The Zone System is wrongly thought by many to be for photographers using large format cameras and working only in monochrome. This is absolute rubbish! The Zone System is a method of controlling the exposure of the subject (using a light meter) and, when using film, the negative contrast (using development).

With digital cameras the exposure procedure is identical to that of film cameras! The 'contrast control' aspect of film development can be modified and incorporated into the digital photographers thinking by relating film development to digital 'Curves' to allow the digital photographer to make different, but carefully controlled, exposures of a subject to capture the full contrast range. The images can then be combined in software to create either a HDR image or a layered composited contrast controlled image.

Both of the controls, exposure and development, work whatever the film used, neither specifies what film to use. Every time you press the shutter release, you are making an exposure and once the film is exposed it requires development to produce the image (assuming silver based methods, not digital). This procedure applies to mono neg., colour neg., and colour tranny in whatever format you choose (110 upwards). The only difference is in the way one applies the system depending upon the format being used. Obviously, with sheet film you can develop each negative separately (the ideal) but with roll film (35mm and 120) the whole roll tends to be developed at the same time. This can be allowed for in your working methods! Ansel Adams used all formats, including Polaroid (he was a consultant for Polaroid), for his image making both in colour and mono using the Zone System.

Many 'experts' in photography have made reputations by trying to re-invent the wheel and coming up with their own systems. They then claim their system is in some way superior in order to market it, usually including trying to denigrate the Zone System to do it. As soon as you look at these 'systems', you realise they are simply the Zone System by another name. The Zone System is the practical application of photographic sensitometry, and the principles of sensitometry haven't changed dramatically since the beginning. Any system of exposure/development control must be based on sensitometry, hence it must be based on the original Zone System.

Some people believe that using the Zone System to control negative quality is not necessary because we have variable contrast papers that can be used to 'rescue' a poor negative. The same poor thinking is used even more in digital photography where people think that camera technique doesn't matter because digital manipulation software can be used to fix mistakes!

I and many others look at it from the other direction, if you start with a superb negative (or tranny, or digital RAW image) all the various controls that follow can be used creatively to 'enhance' an already good original. You have greater creative freedom. Whereas, if the negative or original digital capture is poor to begin with (under-exposed, over-developed is normal for film) most of the 'creative' controls are used up simply trying to scrape a poor image from a poorer original. You lose the creative options. It is so easy to get it right on the negative or with a digital capture, an understanding of the very practical Zone System makes it easy!


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